Looking out at seemingly endless miles of coffee trees near Taratung, Indonesia, baking in the sun, I was transfixed by the workers slaving away, drenched in sweat, and only paid a pittance for their work.
I thought back to the cooperative I visited earlier that morning. There in the shade, a family had been processing cherries and drying the beans. They laughed. They shared stories. They had me taste the rich Sumatran beans whole. They were delicious, but what made them taste even better was knowing that this family was being paid a fair wage for their work, and their working conditions were far better than the inhumane processes at the large coffee-chain-contracted plantations down the road.
Fair Trade is a business model for trade in coffee, chocolate, bananas, clothes, and other commodities with developing countries that “rigorous social, environmental and economic standards work to promote safe, healthy working conditions, protect the environment, enable transparency, and empower communities to build strong, thriving businesses,” according to Fair Trade USA.
Should you care?
And by care, I mean should you pay attention to whether the $5 mocha you’re sipping is made from Fair Trade beans or the new shirt you bought for Friday night was fairly traded? Basically, should you invest the time, money, and effort to invest in Fair Trade items over products that may be cheaper, more readily available, and convenient to purchase?
Yes. Yes you should. Why? Because Fair Trade is just that—fair. Too often, people are exploited for their labor and cut out of the profits. Your ability as a consumer to direct your purchasing power in the direction of fair trade could make a significant impact in the lives of people in places like Guatemala, Kenya, or Indonesia.
There are certainly warranted critiques against Fair Trade systems ranging from overproduction to manipulation of markets to failure to monitor standards. While Fair Trade is far from perfect, it is a necessary first step in seeking justice in our consumption of commodities we use every day.
Here are five reasons why you might consider switching to Fair Trade consumption:
1. Fair trade makes life better.
As mentioned above, Fair Trade helps make sure that workers, and the commodities’ original owners, are given proper wages, given prompt and fair payment, and a wider network of support and sustainable practices that can ensure their present and future success in contexts where this can mean the difference between life and death.
2. Fair trade is not only a financial issue; it’s a spiritual issue.
From my point of view, making the choice for Fair Trade isn’t only an ethical business decision, it impacts our souls. In discussing the widely accepted ethical maxim that we should not steal from one another, the 16th-century, beer-drinking rebel monk and church reformer Martin Luther explained it this way:
We should fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbor’s money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his possessions and income. (Emphasis my own)
It’s not enough to not steal from people. As we tend to our spiritual lives we cannot ignore the physical lives of others. This means in the pursuit of not stealing we must also look to “improve and protect” the business lives of others. Fair Trade helps us do so.
3. Unfair trade harms our fellow humans.
Poverty traps its victims in a cycle of desperation, suffering, exploitation, and hopelessness. This is not supposed to be. The people of this world are, from a biblical perspective, meant to live, and thrive, in a community of mutual sustainability and compassion. To paraphrase a line from the Hebrew Torah—if anyone of you is poor or falters financially then the community is supposed to sustain them, to take care of them and help them live and thrive (Lev 25:35).
4. Fair trade brings dignity.
Fair Trade creates an environment—like the one I witnessed in the shade of Indonesia—where dignity is the norm. Women are able to work for their own wage, own businesses, and provide for their families. Families are able to remain together. Children receive an education. Communities are able to produce year after year and raise each other up from the dust.
5. It’s not actually that difficult.
Sometimes I hear the excuse that shopping for fair trade products is too hard, too expensive, or too inconvenient. Ridonculous.
When I used to teach junior high students, I would take them on a “Fair Trade Scavenger Hunt” each year and have them find 20 different products at the local supermarket that were Fair Trade certified. Not only did the succeed, but they often found bonus products ranging from ice cream to dishwashing sponges.
What can you do to get started? Be a witty fair-trade shopper and learn more about the principles of fair trade. Support Fair Trade by making smart purchasing decisions using a Fair Trade purchasing guide. Ask your local supermarket what Fair Trade products they carry. Ask them to carry specific products you’re looking for. Consider challenging your spiritual community, philanthropic group, or social network to commit to using only Fair Trade products at your gatherings.
In the end, we have to go beyond Fair Trade to develop a more holistic consumption ethic that goes beyond isolated issues like Fair Trade. But for now, we can start by considering how the way we view products and purchase them may put undue burdens on our brothers and sisters across the world. Instead, we can start today by taking advantage of the opportunities around us to positively impact the lives of others and to purchase Fair Trade products as often as we can.
This post reflects the views of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
Or, if you’d like to hear some overall thoughts on fair trade from Christians at THRED, you can find those over here.